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Street check report confirms what Black Haligonians have known for years

Will it be enough to spark change?

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The street check report findings are not news to community leaders like Robert Wright, Sylvia Parris and Trayvone Clayton. - RYAN WILLIAMS
  • RYAN WILLIAMS
  • The street check report findings are not news to community leaders like Robert Wright, Sylvia Parris and Trayvone Clayton.

Time and time again the stories are told, and time and time again no change has come. For years, Nova Scotia's Black community has been recounting stories of pain, frustration and fear in its interactions with police.

Now, with the release of the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission's report on street checks, African Nova Scotians are tentatively hopeful that a wake-up call is finally coming for Halifax police.

THE REPORT
At a press conference in Paul O'Regan Hall this past Wednesday, University of Toronto professor Scot Wortley unveiled the major findings of a year-long inquiry into the practice of street-checking in Halifax.

"The research clearly demonstrates that police street-check practices have had a disproportionate and negative impact on the African Nova Scotian community," says Wortley. "Street checks have contributed to the criminalization of Black youth, eroded trust in law enforcement and undermined the perceived legitimacy of the entire criminal justice system."

Street-checking—the practice of watching or stopping citizens in order to gather police intelligence—has been highly criticized across Canada for its ties to racial profiling.

According to the 180-page report, Black people account for more than 18 percent of street checks in the city, despite making up only 3.74 percent of the municipality's population, and are six times more likely to be stopped by the cops than white Nova Scotians—double the numbers reported in January 2017 by CBC.

For Black men in Halifax, the numbers are even more stark. Wortley's report revealed that Black men are nine times more likely to be street-checked than the rest of the population. Arab men and Black women are the next most likely to be stopped.

Beyond the data itself—which spans 2006 to 2017—Wortley's report compiles pages upon pages of chilling testimony collected from community consultations and individual interviews. The testimonies describe instances of discrimination, intimidation and even violence from Halifax's police officers, and highlight the experiences of pain, frustration and fear from the Black community.

The report revealed that street checks are used on a quota system: Police leadership prefer a high quantity of checks over a high quality. Halifax has the second-highest rate of street checks in the country, after Toronto. Police also noted in the report that there was little training or policy on when or how street checks are meant to be used.

Robert Wright, a social worker and chair of the African Nova Scotian Decade for People of African Descent (DPAD) Coalition's justice committee, says the findings are not unexpected.

"Nothing surprised me," he says. "The disproportionality didn't surprise me, the chilling stories that were recorded there didn't surprise me, the bizarre contributions from anonymous police officers, none of that surprised me."

He and other members of the African Nova Scotian community have been sharing these stories for years and were repeatedly met with disbelief, or else were told that street checks are in fact a valuable, necessary information-gathering policing tool by the likes of outgoing police chief Jean-Michel Blais.

At March 27's press conference, representatives for the city, the province and the police all expressed shock and discomfort at the testimonies laid out in the report.

"We were particularly moved by the very personal experiences told and the negative impacts on African Nova Scotians and communities," said councillor Steve Craig, who chairs the Police Board of Commissioners. "To tell these experiences so candidly takes courage and strength."

Wright says while he believes in the goodwill of the commissioner, he has a hard time believing his shock.

"How do you get to be the head of the police commission and be horrified by the stories people tell about their racist interactions with the police?" Wright asks. "Do you not know that people suffer daily indignity in their encounters with the police?"

Sylvia Parris is a former member of the Police Board of Commissioners and CEO at Delmore Buddy Daye Learning Institute. - RYAN WILLIAMS
  • RYAN WILLIAMS
  • Sylvia Parris is a former member of the Police Board of Commissioners and CEO at Delmore Buddy Daye Learning Institute.

"WE'RE TELLING THE TRUTH"
Trayvone Clayton, raised in Uniacke Square, was only 16 the first time he was stopped by Halifax Regional Police.

He left a party in the south end alone, thinking one person would draw less unwanted police attention than a group of teens, when a cop car swerved around the corner and nearly hit him. The officer got out of the car and told Clayton to get on the sidewalk. When Clayton didn't move immediately, the officer grabbed him by the shoulder.

"He grips me, he puts me in a chokehold, slams me to the ground and he puts his knee to my head and I'm thinking 'What did I do wrong to cause this?'" says Clayton.

The officer put Clayton in the back of the car and tried to charge him with assault and resisting arrest. "I'm seeing him typing in the charges he's trying to put on me," he says. "I'm 16 and he's looking to ruin my career right there."

It's a story Clayton has told in countless interviews, community meetings and press conferences over the years. He's 20 now, a student at Saint Mary's University, and consistently discouraged by his story falling repeatedly on deaf ears.

"I'm only getting older and this stuff just gonna continue to happen," he says. "It's just going to hurt me and I'm just going to stay bothered, especially if I don't speak on it. I wish I had the courage I have now to do that at the age of 16."

Clayton was unsurprised by the report, but recognizes it as an important step in getting Halifax to finally start to listen.

"It shouldn't have to come down to getting a white person to share for us, they should have believed us right from the beginning," he says. "We're telling the truth. Why would we lie to make a change? Why would we even do this if we were lying?"

Clayton, along with other members of the Black community in Halifax, is calling for an absolute ban on street checks.

Community members demanding a complete ban on street checks. - SANDRA C. HANNEBOHM
  • Sandra C. Hannebohm
  • Community members demanding a complete ban on street checks.

On Saturday he led a feedback session to present the report to community members who were not invited to Wednesday's press conference, as well as a march from the Halifax North Memorial Public Library to the Gottingen Street police headquarters to demand action from HRP leaders.

Wortley's report outlines a possible recommendation to implement a ban, but ultimately Wortley says it's not his decision to make.

"However, I feel strongly that, if a complete ban is not forthcoming, the monitoring and regulation of street checks–and other forms of police-civilian interaction–must be enhanced," he writes in the report.

A HISTORY OF PUSHBACK
This is not the first time the African Nova Scotian community has pushed for a ban on street checks.

After CBC released its analysis of police data gathered through a freedom of information request, Wright and other members of the DPAD Coalition sent a letter to the Serious Incident Response Team (SiRT) and the Human Rights Commission in 2017 asking for an immediate ban on street checks as well as an inquiry into the practice.

While the inquiry was struck, no ban was put in place.

When Wortley's inquiry was just getting started, Sylvia Parris, a former member of the Police Board of Commissioners, called for a moratorium on the practice, at least until Wortley's analysis was complete.

There was no moratorium. Parris was told that street checks were an effective policing tool and couldn't be eliminated without proper analysis. Now, says Parris, "we're ready for a stop."

"You just keep needing to prove it over and over again and you need to reach this kind of magic number that makes people go 'Oh yeah, that is valid,'" she says. "And obviously we haven't reached it in the system's mind yet."

The DPAD Coalition maintains that the practice of street-checking is illegal: Police have no authority to stop citizens without grounds for suspicion.

"Even if street checks weren't illegal, the evidence of racism in street checks renders them illegal," says Wright. "And yet everybody is going business as usual until we figure it out."

Trayvone Clayton is an activist and university student from Uniacke Square. - RYAN WILLIAMS
  • RYAN WILLIAMS
  • Trayvone Clayton is an activist and university student from Uniacke Square.

A SYSTEMIC PROBLEM
All of this comes at a time of big changes for Halifax Regional Police. With Blais' term winding down and the hunt for a new chief underway, the opportunity for large-scale change seems closer than ever.

Wright says he appreciates the challenge that is to come for police leadership in tackling the report.

Alongside the harrowing stories from Black Haligonians in Wortley's report is a section of responses from police and white Haligonians, many of whom struggle to identify the problem with the street-checking practice.

One anonymous police officer is quoted saying: "I really don't understand why they don't like us. We're just doing our jobs, trying to prevent crime and trying to keep all people safe, regardless of their ethnic background. That is why I find this situation so difficult."

This line is a common one. Police in Halifax have maintained that they are simply doing their jobs when they conduct street checks, that their main objective is to protect all of Halifax's citizens and that the racial profiling described by the Black community is not actually profiling, but instead a by-product of increased crime rates among the Black population.

"Is there more crime in Black neighbourhoods? What is the analysis of that?" asks Parris. "What is structurally happening in society that even allows for that conversation to happen?"

For Parris, Wright and Clayton, this bland response from police demonstrates that street checks are part of a much larger issue of systemic racism in Nova Scotia.

The tenuous and often misunderstood relationship between police and Black communities in the province stems from a centuries-long history of pain and injustice for the Black community.

"I give people a lot of grace for not understanding it," says Wright. "It's sad, but it also helps us to understand the frustration of Black folks, because it's that kind of ignorant response to an obvious problem that Black people have to live with all the time."

Robert Wright is a social worker and chair of the African Nova Scotian Decade for People of African Descent (DPAD) Coalition's justice committee. - RYAN WILLIAMS
  • RYAN WILLIAMS
  • Robert Wright is a social worker and chair of the African Nova Scotian Decade for People of African Descent (DPAD) Coalition's justice committee.

CHANGE IS GON' COME
In response to Wortley's report, minister of justice Mark Furey released a statement on Thursday calling for an immediate end to using street checks as a quota or performance measurement tool.

The statement, "Action on Street Checks report," called on the DPAD Coalition, the Human Rights Commission and police to begin working on solutions to the problem of street checking in Nova Scotia. "The findings of this report are alarming and the findings are unacceptable," said Furey. "Immediate action will be taken to correct this."

Still, members of the Black community worry that even with the glaring evidence presented in the report, change is still a long way away.

"Wortley's report alone will not create the change necessary," says Wright. "If the Black community uses Wortley's report as a tool in their continued efforts to have some redress to this matter, then we will have some success, but I think the issue of success or failure rises and falls on the degree to which the Black community puts their shoulder to this wheel."

According to minister Furey's statement, the Department of Justice plans to invest in "mandatory training" for all officers around the findings of the report, and "reinforce with officers the fundamentals of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms."

Parris says she's still looking for more. "I'm not looking for another Band-Aid of a training thing, I'm looking for a system that says, in a navel gazing way, we have not got this right and in fact I can see how people see we're being deliberately wrong," she says.

Wright is encouraged by the urgency of the minister's response, but he too is hoping for more direct action. "My disappointment is that he would not call for an absolute ban on street checks," he says. "What he's saying is I recognize there's a problem, but for the temporary solution that I'm going to implement, I'm taking direction more from police than from community."

In Ontario, public outcry about carding and street checks led to public consultations in 2015. The consultations led to new legislation in 2017 banning "arbitrary" carding and requiring police to let people being randomly stopped know that the interaction is voluntary. Though even with these changes, in early 2019 justice Michael Tulloch released a report recommending carding still be banned completely in Ontario.

According to the minister's statement, a short-, medium- and long-term plan regarding street checks is expected to be delivered mid-May. In the meantime, Parris is excited to see young Black people like Clayton taking up the torch and leading the way for change.

Clayton himself is excited. He's continuing to look for opportunities to bring communities together and allow African Nova Scotians a voice in the conversation.

"I want equality. Cause every time I ask a white person, 'Have you ever felt this kind of way with the police?' I keep getting the same answer, and it's no," he says. "I want to be able to say that, and I want kids that are coming up [in the next] generation to be able to say 'No, I never felt that before.'"


Julia-Simone Rutgers is a graduating journalism student at King's whose work focuses on centering and amplifying marginalized voices.

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